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tv   HAR Dtalk  BBC News  December 15, 2021 12:30am-1:01am GMT

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this is bbc news. we will have the headlines and all the main news stories for you at the top of the hour as newsday continues straight after hard talk. welcome to hardtalk. i'm stephen sackur. wherever we live in the world, our home country and its dominant culture will have done much to shape our identity. from the history we learn in school to the statues in our city squares, we are embedded in a national story. but what if that story is deeply misleading? well, my guest is the british—indian writer sathnam
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sanghera, whose bestselling book empire land challenges the dominant british view of the empire and its legacy. is britain one of many countries struggling to tell the truth about its past and present? sathnam sanghera, welcome to hardtalk. thanks for having me on. it's a great pleasure to have you on. i want to start with a very personal question. you are a great success. your book empire land has become a bestseller. you write for some of britain's most prestigious newspapers. yet your writing is full
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of unease about the country in which you live, which you call home. how do you put those two together? well, i think if you understand your history, you learn to appreciate it more. there's an idea in britain that in order to be proud of being british, you need to be proud of british history. but, actually, that's an idiotic thing, because what does that mean? i mean, are you proud of abolition? are you proud of slavery? history is argument. it's not a fixed thing. so, i think understanding your history is a vital part of patriotism. did you become more uneasy about the british culture you were living in and thriving in as you got older? no, actually. i think i've learned more about the history as i've got older, and it's taught me to appreciate this country even more, because what i've learned is that british history is brown history in that it encompasses most ethnic groups in britain. i grew up with a narrative that we were relatively recent
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arrivals to britain, and, actually, there are connections to india and africa going back centuries. you certainly weren't taught that british history is brown history at school because i want to take you back to your schooling, to your childhood. brought up in an industrial town in the west midlands, your parents immigrants from punjab in india, you were taught very little about the connections between your family and your new country. yeah, i guess, on paper, i had quite a bad start. my dad, totally illiterate and has schizophrenia. i arrived at school not being able to speak english. i was working in a factory myself throughout my schooling for 50p an hour, but i'm now a bestselling author. and i think i say that not to boast, but because i think my story is typical of many immigrants, and this is what immigrant families do. they arrive, they face adversity and they do well. they enhance the culture and the economy of this country. but the only narrative you hear is that
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immigrants are a burden. right. but if your contention is that your story is very typical of the immigrant story, then it raises a fundamental question about the sort of overarching theme of much of your work, which is that empire and the legacy of empire maintains a sort of grip on britain which makes britain still a fundamentally racist country. yet yours is a story of, in a sense, inclusivity, of success, of sathnam sanghera being embraced. yeah, i think when you talk about the legacy of empire, it's notjust racism, it's also our multiculturalism. it's our psychology, it's our politics, it's our wealth. it's a multifaceted thing. it's notjust one thing. so, yes, the racism is a negative thing, but there's also the fact that empire is the reason british people travel so far, and that is a pretty neutral thing. education is important here, so i want to go into a little bit of detail about what you learned and how you learnt it, because as you say, you were from a deprived part of wolverhampton
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in the west midlands and yet you were academically gifted and successful so you went to a predominantly white grammar school in a very different neighbourhood. and you say that that school, it had a huge impact on you. i think one phrase you've used is that it sort of "cleansed your mind", and not necessarily in an altogether positive way. what did it do to you? well, i guess it got me where i wanted to go, which is intojournalism and into the establishment. there's no way i would have got a job on the financial times if i hadn't gone to cambridge university. but at the same time, i think i lost touch with my ethnic background and being punjabi in that i didn't study a single brown author until my final terms at university. and i think that was a failure of education, and i don't think my experience is untypical, in that a lot of our education, our curriculums are whitewashed and we don't study the role that empire had in so many things. and to take things that are very relevant to your own family's history, did you learn in your history
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lessons about, i don't know, the indian rebellion of 1857? or did you learn about the amritsar massacre of 1919? no! these are hugely important moments in the evolution of a sort of independence mind—set in india. even when we were taught things, we weren't taught about the imperial context. so, for example, world war i, world war ii, we all learn about that at school. no—one told a kind of ethnically diverse student base that six million soldiers from the colonies also fought for britain in both world wars. and also, no—one mentioned when we were studying the tudors that there were black people in henry viii's court, that queen elizabeth i was complaining about there being too many black people in the 1600s. and i think you can carry on teaching these things, but also include the imperial dimension. so, curriculums need rewriting, do they? yeah. and when you talk about the decolonisation of curriculums, people get upset. it implies that you're
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wanting to delete things out of the curriculum. but i think you can continue to teach things like the world wars and so on and just include black history and brown history. i suppose the question then is what sathnam sanghera would teach, because i look at your writings, including empire land, but yourjournalism as well, and you are very trenchant in your views now about how we need to use very specific language about, for example, the british empire. you call it "a wilful, unapologetic exercise in white racial supremacy. britain was dehumanising black people on a super—industrial scale." but i also say empire didn't start out as that. it didn't start out as a wilfully racist thing. it happened in the 19th century when britain suddenly found itself ruling a quarter of the planet and noticed that they were white and almost all the people they were ruling over were brown. and there were all these weird ideas to do with racial science that were emerging, and it turned into a proudly white supremacist exercise.
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but that was pretty much in the 19th century. it wasn't for the whole history. right. but, you know, there are a lot of people watching this around britain who will be finding that language hard to stomach. yeah, i think there's an amnesia about that. i think because we beat the evil, racist germans in world war ii and we abolished slavery, there's an idea that we are beyond racism in this country. but i think we have institutional racism in this country because our society was built on the racist institution of british empire. and again, words matter. you use the word "genocide" to talk about certain times, certain incidents in the british empire story. you're very sure? you really think it meets that standard of genocide? absolutely. the tasmanian genocide — every historian i consulted called it that, and, actually, it was considered such a pure genocide it was used as an example when we were developing international laws about genocide. it was the example that people went to. and yet now you have,
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in mainstream newspapers, people denying it even happened, which i think is quite disgusting. so, yours is a commitment to truth—telling, to confronting the facts, the real story of the british empire. but, of course, i don't need to tell you this — i mean, in history, interpretation is always the thing. you know, facts can be interpreted in different ways, but not only that, also emphasis can be put on different things, priority can be placed in different areas. your view of what matters most about the empire story isn't that of many other historians, who see many more positive facets of what the british empire gave to the world. well, i think this view of british empire through the balance sheet, this idea you can balance genocides against railways and come to an overall conclusion is one of the reasons we're so messed up about the subject, because i don't think you can give a five—star rating to british empire like you're reviewing a restaurant
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on deliveroo. you know, it's much more complicated. you're talking about 500 years of history. terrible things happened. good things happened. you can point those things out, but i don't think you can come to an overall conclusion. but the good things don't get a hugely prominent sort of place in your imperial history. well, that's because i think we've only had the good view. i mean, we tend to... have we? we tend not to think about british empire in this country. but when we do, it tends to be quite nostalgic films about the raj or bbc documentaries about the railways presented by men of a certain age wearing red trousers, talking about the gift the british have given the indians. and we all know now, actually, they weren't a gift and, actually, the railways were built for the british, for military and economic reasons. and i think we have a very rosy view of empire, and so it's good to point out some other things. there's another intellectual frame that historians sometimes imply, and that is comparison. they look at the british empire and what it did in the countries in which it occupied the territory
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and ruled the people and compares it with others, for example, the belgians in africa. and the conclusion is always, you know, for all of the terrible flaws with what the british did and the violence that came with it, there was — well, to coin a cliche from the past — a civilising mission there which certainly was absent from the belgians in africa. i think comparing empires isjust as inane as the balance sheet. it's like saying it's ok to kick an old man in the shins because someone slapped you earlier in the day. it's not. you're basically in the problematic area of philosophy and ethnic... ..sorry, ethicaljudgment. hmm. niall ferguson, the prominent scottish historian who now resides and is an american citizen, he said, "ultimately, let's not forget, the british empire shaped the modern world. it spread democracy and was significantly more benign than other empires."
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do you have any time for that sentiment at all? no, i don't. but i have time for niall ferguson in that i think he's mischaracterised as someone who's only got good things to say about empire, but he writes very movingly about the injustice of slavery. he writes about the tasmanian genocide, and actually, he doesn't flinch at describing some of the terrible things that happened during empire. but his overall argument of comparing one thing to another is, i think, daft. yeah. you don'tjust write history. you obviously write a lot of contemporaryjournalism. looking at the way societies work today, you are, i'm sure, more aware than anyone of the degree to which this phrase "culture wars" has captured the imagination, notjust in the uk but in many countries around the world. and it's symbolised by arguments over, for example, statues — what they represent, whether they are things, symbols, which should be removed if they are clear reminders of an imperial past,
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of slavery, of other issues which people think are no longer to be tolerated. what's your position on bringing down statues? i think statues don't matter in that. i think there's many more important imperial legacies. but statues are also not history. history is argument. statues are propaganda. they tell you one person's view of one person at one point in history. if that view then changes, it's quite 0k to leave that statue up or bring it down. my preferred solution is to have one day a year where we pelt the statues we don't like with tomatoes and everyone has therapy, everyone feels better, everyone gets educated but, equally, you're not accused of tearing down history, which is often the accusation. yeah, in the last couple of years, with a powerful surge in the black lives matter movement across the world, one of the issues that movement did focus upon was removing symbols that were connected to slavery. in bristol, in the south—west of england, we saw a statue, sir edward colston, a former
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rich slave trader, his statue chucked into the dock water of bristol port. were you internally cheering when that happened? i thought it was really interesting, and i think now it's in a museum or a gallery, and it's much more interesting than it was when it was in the street and no—one really noticed it. there's nothing more invisible than a statue apart from perhaps a plaque on a statue. most of the time, we don't notice them. it's only these protests that have brought them to our attention, and i think the conversations they've inspired have been very interesting, although statues aren't particularly interesting in themselves. how far do you take this? museums are stuffed, certainly in the uk, stuffed full with artefacts that were brought home, some would say looted, from countries that were part of the british empire. should those objects be returned? is there a blatant issue here of making amends, reparations? i think we should look at items
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on a case—by—case basis. and some of the items at the time were considered loot, and i remember gladstone, for example, talking about some items had been taken from ethiopia and saying it would be good if we returned them. and that was 100 years ago and we still haven't returned them. they're in the v&a. and we've got to remember that the british museum, for example, only has 1% of its collection on display. if you returned a few items, you've still got 99.99% of your collection, and you've probably got a very interesting scholarship, you've got very interesting exhibitions. and also we improve our relationships with the world at a time we really need to improve our relationships with the world. i used that phrase "cultu re war". in your view, is this a war that needs to be fought, that, however heated it gets, however much mutual mistrust and suspicion is aroused between different ideologies, maybe even different races, as this debate rages, it's worth it, is it?
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yeah, i mean, i can't say it's particularly pleasant, and they accuse each other of starting it. i mean, people say the black lives matter movement started the culture war on empire. some people accuse the right—wing part of the conservative party for egging it on, but it's an issue that young people really care about, i think. there was a yougov survey done recently which found that 75% of british people think it's a good idea to teach colonialism and slavery in our schools. so, i think most people are ok with it. but there's a fringe number of people who are very against it and hence this culture war. yeah, but there's also interesting statistics which show that british kids who study history are perfectly free to choose modules which focus on imperial history, for example, and the slave trade and all of that, and actually it seems only about 10% of those children choose those modules. they're, it seems, on the whole much keener to choose the second world war or even henry viii and the tudors. so, whether you feel this has
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to be forced down kids�* throats is one question. well, the thing is, during my lifetime, there have been two massive racist scandals, the stephen lawrence murder and windrush. both inquiries said the solution to racism was to teach the history of empire. and i believe that. i think empire is the biggest thing this country ever did. it explains why we are multicultural, explains our particular brand of racism in this country. and i think until we teach it, we're going to keep on having these kind of circular scandals about racism. i've just come back from the united states, where i interviewed a really interesting activist on the right of politics in the us called ryan girdusky. now, he's founded a political movement which is dedicated to stopping what he calls "critical race theory" being taught in american public schools. he says all it does... and it's contentious, even the notion that it's being taught, because some argue it's an academic theory that doesn't get to schools.
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but in his view, what is happening is that white kids are being taught to feel shame and guilt, black kids are being taught to experience permanent victimhood, and both sides of that equation, he says, are fundamentally unhealthy. i think "critical race theory" is one of those phrases, like "woke", that right—wing people throw around to kind of scaremonger about race, to create an idea that any exploration of, you know, black history is teaching kids to hate white people. i've tried to understand critical race theory. i spent several days on it, and i still don't really understand it. if our kids are being taught it, i think it's great. it means they're very smart, probably smarter than you and i, because they understand it. but it's not being taught. it's just a way to demonise the opposition. and, actually, i don't think we help ourselves by talking about decolonising curriculums. i think that creates the idea we're trying to delete parts of the canon, when, actually, i think it's about widening the curriculum, about giving an imperial context to things we already teach.
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what about saying sorry? is that important? because it seems to me politicians have embraced much of what you say about truth—telling, about being more sort of fact—based and clear—eyed about what empire meant. but when it comes to demands for apology, for saying sorry, then we've seen political leaders from david cameron to gordon brown, both sides of the mainstream political spectrum in the uk, shy away from that. i thought we were going to say sorry when the centenary ofjallianwala bagh, the massacre in india in 1919, happened. and it never happened. we never apologised. i think the only british politician who has is sadiq khan. i'm actuallyjust looking at a quote here from cameron about that very apology which didn't happen. he said, "in the end..." i think this was in 2013. "..i do not think the right thing to do is reach back into history and seek out things that we should apologise for." the thing is we have apologised for certain things. we apologised for the great
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potato famine as part of the good friday agreement. we apologised when the mau mau in kenya sued the british government and won. so, we are capable of it. and also, i think in both of those cases, it led to healing, and i think the same can happen for indian history and african history. you say it leads to healing. what if it leads to resentment? i'm very taken with something that's just happened in sheffield in the north of england, where the city council, which is a labour city council, lots of sort of progressive ideas within that council, it's just decided not to remove street names that, quote unquote, "perpetuate racist or outdated messages because" — again quote — "of the strong feeling of residents who didn't want those traditional street names changed". i think when it comes to street names, peoplejust generally don't want the hassle of having to change their address. but there's something important here, isn't there? you've got to take people with you. you obviously come to this as an extremely sort of well—read british—indian who knows your history, but there are many people
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who would in sheffield look at the renaming of their streets and they would just feel it was a sort of attack on their traditions, their city, their culture, and they would resent it. well, it hasn't happened. so, they've got nothing to resent. but i'm thinking of one street name in london that's been changed in southall. it's now called guru nanak road, and it's where one of the biggest sikh temples exists in london. and that's a part of the world where every politician goes to campaign during election time, because the sikh community are considered a swing voting community. and why not change it? and it's not hurt anyone. it's generally a popular thing that's been done, but it's got to be taken case by case. let's end by bringing it back to the personal and a reflection on how far you feel your own country has changed. you made a documentary recently based on your book in which there was a very powerful scene where you return. you're a fan of wolverhampton wanderers and you return to your team's home ground with your brother.
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and it was at a time when the wolves players were taking the knee as an expression of support for black lives matter. some in the crowd were clearly happy about that. some in the crowd were booing them. these were fellow wolves fans booing your players, a good number of whom were of ethnic minority, for taking the knee. did that tell you that not much has changed over the last 30 or a0 years in wolverhampton or not? i think if you look at the wolves, the overall story is a very positive one, in that in the �*70s their fans were known for wearing kkk hoods to matches. my mum wouldn't allow me out of the house if wolves were playing. but now they've got a massively diverse fan base. we've had a captain himself who was half punjabi in recent memory. but they did boo the taking of the knee, and at that same match, someone was caught doing monkey chants to rio ferdinand, who was there to commentate on the match. so, i think that's really depressing and we've got a lot of work still to do. and in terms of your personal story, the honesty
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with which you've talked about your unease at being disconnected as a successful sort ofjournalist in the metropolitan elite in london, disconnected from your punjabi—born parents and from yourfamily in india, has that been resolved within you or do you feel that sense of disconnection still? no. i feel like the two parts of my identity are now more connected because i know about the history. i know that the sikhs took the side of the british at the 1857 mutiny. i know that 83,000 sikhs died fighting for this country in two world wars. i know we took advantage of opportunities to migrate across empire, so i feel like british imperial history is also my history and i feel more connected than ever before. and you're very close to two nieces, who again appear in that documentary, and they're forging lives in this, you know, london and uk of 2021. do you think their experience
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is going to be different and easier from yours? yeah, i think this generation we've got, generation z, i think they call them, are the most racially diverse generation in british history. they feel the way about museums the way we felt about zoos. they can't really understand why we've got all this stuff, and i think they're going to change the world. what a great way to end. sathnam sanghera, thank you so much for being on hardtalk. thank you. hello. while the key message in the weather forecast is that the weather is going to be very settled over
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the next few days, a big area of high pressure is going to establish itself across the uk, and that means settled conditions, i think, in the run—up to christmas. and on the satellite picture, you can see that area of high pressure across spain, portugal and france. it's building here, and it's extending northwards. and as it extends northwards, it's going to push the fronts away to the north as well. but for the time being, we still have quite a few isobars, these pressure lines, so a stronger wind and a weather front close to northern ireland and across western parts of scotland and the north, as well, during the course of wednesday. so, here, it will be at times cloudy, but it's mild with that cloudy, rainy weather, around nine, eight degrees celsius. to the south of that, very mild, too. ten degrees, but it is dry. now, the cloud cover on wednesday will vary considerably across the uk. we still have that weakening weather front in the north west here, so dribs and drabs of rain. and at the very least, it will be cloudy, but plenty
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of bright if not even sunny weather around merseyside, parts of the midlands, lincolnshire, also northern and eastern parts of scotland. in the south, we have thicker cloud because it's drifting in from the southern climes here. now, this high pressure really will be in place across the uk by thursday. you can see the weather fronts have been pushed to the north, so that means it's drying out right across the uk. still a little bit of rain maybe early in the morning flirting with the very far north west of scotland and the northern isles, but you can see the bulk of the country is dry on thursday. and again, a lot of variation in the cloud cover, but wherever you will be on thursday, i think the temperature will be more or less the same, around 10—12 degrees celsius. now, this is what we call a blocking high, and this happens when the jet stream sort of wraps around it in the shape of the greek letter omega. so, you can just about make out that omega shape. when that happens in the atmosphere, things don't tend to move around an awful lot. they get sort of locked in, so that's why that high pressure will lock itself
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in across this part of the world, across our shores. so, very little change is expected as we head through friday, through the weekend and into next week as well. that's it from me.
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welcome to newsday, reporting live from singapore. i'm karishma vaswani. the headlines: most countries probably have 0micron cases and it's spreading faster than previous variants. the world health organization warns the world to prepare. evenif even if 0micron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could, once again, overwhelm unprepared health systems. noes to the left, 126. wow, cosh. in the uk, dozens of the prime minister's own mps vote against
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new covid restrictions. the latest blow to boris johnson's authority.


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